So, yesterday I began my background reading, pulling out a book I hadn't read in some time: the Planet Stories edition of Elak of Atlantis.I got this one when I first came out, read it and enjoyed it at the time, but had not read it since, so I only vaguely remembered it. I'm not intending to properly review it – though I will say here and now that I do recommend it – but I will share my impressions of it on a second run through.
It is a glorious mess. It's certainly not in the top bracket of writing, but just as certainly it is a fun read. Howard blended in history from a wide range of different periods, remaking and shaping it to create a world that felt real, that felt as if it just might have existed. Kuttner is perfectly happy to have Vikings launching raids on Atlantis, to have characters swearing to gods from pantheons that probably never interacted, to have the Druids fighting off demons. Today, a lot of people would do the same thing but use fairly transparent renaming; I believe the true art is in using similar ideas and blending them together to create something unique...but there is no denying that on at least some level, Kuttner's Elak does work.
In the course of the five stories recorded in the book, Elak goes from wandering adventurer to ruler of a kingdom; that he was the rightful ruler of that kingdom is almost incidental in a sense, as he still ends up conquering it by the sword. This story is only really told in the first and last stories; in the intervening stories he is engaging in the usual adventurous pursuits, guarding kings, fighting demons and the like.
If I were to give the strongest point of the stories, it would be the effects budget; Kuttner is not afraid to send his hero into a wide variety of mystical planes and other worlds, fighting strange creatures. In this he has obviously been influenced strongly by the weird fiction of the day, which of course went hand-in-hand with the fantasy adventure genre. The addition of a regular sidekick 'comic effect' character is also a strong point. The weakness, I would say, is scope. The world feels the same wherever he goes; one city seems to blend into another, the landscape all feels the same. Though he travels across the continent of Atlantis, it almost feels as if he might have stayed at home in Posideonis.
I'm just starting my warm-up at this point; this seemed like a good place to start. Now, Howard beckons, but not Conan, instead a character I have always had great fondness for – none other than King Kull, exile of Atlantis!